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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Carmen at the Zurich Opera House

    Carmen, opéra-comique in four acts, sung in French, with German and English surtitles
    Music by Georges Bizet.
    Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on a novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée.
    Premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 3 March 1875.

    This article is part of the Opera Lively coverage of opera houses in the German-speaking area of Central Europe in the Summer of 2018 - see the links to numerous other reviews, interviews, pictorial blogs, and other articles related to this coverage, by clicking [here].

    This review is of the performance on July 4, 2018, attended in person.

    I also reviewed this same physical production already further down in this thread, since the production is the same contained on a 2009 DVD filmed in 2008, further down in this thread (below the Zurich pictorial blog). A click [here] will take the reader directly to the review of the DVD below, which has the exact same crew, but a completely different musical staff.

    This is a revival of a 2008 production of Opernhaus Zürich, using the Viennese version with music for the recitatives done by Ernest Guiraud, using the critical edition of the score by Michael Rot, Musikverlag Hermann Wien.

    Philharmonia Zürich conducted by Eun Sun Kim
    Chor der Oper Zürich
    Zusatzchor, SoprAlti, and Kinderhor der Oper Zürich
    Chorus Master Janko Kastelic

    Producer Matthias Hartmann
    Stage designer Volker Hintermeier
    Costumes Su Bühler
    Lighting designer Martin Gebhardt
    Choreography Teresa Rotemberg
    Dramaturgy Michael Küster
    Fighting coach Werner Hug


    Carmen Varduhi Abrahamyan
    Micaëla Guanqun Yu
    Mercédès Irène Friedli
    Frasquita Sen Guo
    Don José Dmytro Popov
    Escamillo Jean-Sebastien Bou
    Le Remendado Jamez McCorkle
    Le Dancaïre Dmytro Kalmuchyn
    Moralès Yuriy Tsiple
    Zuniga Cody Quattlebaum


    It has long since become a myth: Carmen, the gypsy woman, who in the end pays her love of freedom with death. At the Paris premiere in 1875, the audience reacted reserved, if not shocked, to the crude realism of Bizet's opera. Offensively sensual Carmen represents a position that clearly exceeded the narrow limits of the bourgeois "good taste" of that time. Only the Viennese first performance initiated the triumph of the work, which continues unabated until today.

    Matthias Hartmann's production tells the tragic story without any folkloristic conventions. Under a blazing sun, the archaic world of smugglers and gypsies encounters a corrupt police world; the drama between Carmen and her obsessive sergeant Don José inevitably comes to a head.

    The Armenian mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan was last seen at the Zurich Opera House as a passionate Bradamante in Handel's Alcina , but Bizet's Carmen is also one of her showpiece roles. Previous performances with this role have taken her to the Moscow Bolshoi Theater and the Opéra National de Paris, among others.

    At the podium of the Philharmonia Zürich is for the first time the Korean conductor Eun Sun Kim, who has in recent years successfully performed at such prestigious houses as the Semperoper Dresden and the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden.

    Scroll down for production pictures after the review, see more pictures and look at performance dates and tickets by visiting the Opernhaus Zürich website: click [here].


    Review of the performance:


    This is a demonstration of how there is no comparison between watching a DVD and attending an opera in person. I gave to this same physical production on DVD a score of B (for now, I'm talking exclusively about the theatrical aspects, not the musical ones, which I will address next). However I liked the production much better this time, and I'm upgrading it to an A. First of all, the nerdy Don José which didn't really work so well on DVD (he is an angry and powerful character, not a nerd) got changed into a more manly one. Second, the sets for some of the acts, which I didn't like so much on the DVD, looked much prettier and more convincing in person. It also has to do with the spacial side of it: while on DVD the stage seems too small, it is really ideally sized, for the dimensions of the opera house (an intimate, small one, with excellent acoustics and beautiful decor, by the way - also, the seats are the most comfortable in this trip, so far).

    Being in the middle of the audience rather than watching on TV from my living room was also more interesting: in Zurich people dress more casually than in Munich, for example, and the audience is younger (and better-looking - beauty is favored by youth). I also liked the fact that there were children in the audience. I admired the attention and excitement shown by three girls in one of the boxes. They looked like around 8 years of age, and did not get tired despite the 3 hours and 20 minutes of duration. Actually they shrieked and jumped up and down when applauding their favorite singers in curtain calls. It is beautiful to see that the popularity of opera is alive and well in Europe, with children this young loving the art form so much.

    Let's go directly to the musical and acting differences between the cast of this revival, and the one on the DVD.

    Obviously we don't have Jonas Kaufmann, who was simply brilliant in 2008. However, surprisingly, the Ukranian tenor Dmytro Popov did not make me miss Jonas. He delivered very good singing, with a beautiful timbre of voice, good projection, and lots of emotional colors. He was one of the two singers for whom I shouted "Bravo!" and I grant him A++; rather flawless; he is an artist to be watched.

    By far the weakest link on the DVD was the Micaëla. Tonight it was the exact opposite: Chinese soprano Granqun Yu was the best singer of the evening (and the other one for whom I issued a "Brava!" after her sensational delivery of Micaëla's third act aria. A++.

    Our Carmen tonight, Armenian mezzo Varduhi Abrahamyan was also somewhat the opposite of the one on the DVD, the veteran singer Vesselina Kasarova, who has a strange voice (but compelling once we get used to it) but is an accomplished actress. Well, Varduhi's voice is beautiful although she made some less successful choices - sang the Habanera very slowly - and she has a beautiful body that fulfills the "physique du rôle" part for this sultry character, but her acting was less accomplished; for example when Don José sings "La fleur que tu m'avait jetée" she simply sits there, not bothering with changing much her facial expression while he goes through it. She also didn't seem to have a lot of chemistry with our Don José. Still, vocally she had what it takes to sing Carmen, and therefore earns a score of A.

    Our Escamillo, French bariton Jean-Sébastian Bou did well during the third act but suffered in the second act from the same issue that plagues many baritones who tackle this whole: he significantly lost volume in the low notes of the Toréador song. B+.

    Comprimarios were generally better than on the DVD, with the exception of Yury Tsiple as Moralès, who didn't do well. A.

    Ten years later, the choruses have improved too, both the adult one and the Kinderchor; the latter was better rehearsed and did not have the synchrony problems of the DVD version. A.

    The orchestra performed just as well as on the DVD, with no issues that I could discern. A+. Korean female conductor Eun Sun Kim did very well. She conducted a fast-paced overture but kept perfect control of her forces in terms of support for the singers (with the proper dynamics), and slowed down significantly when Abrahamyan took it slowly, not allowing any synchrony problems. A+.

    The average for the musical part comes up to right in the middle of A and A+. I will round up the overall score of the show to A+ given that this time I found the physical production quite enjoyable. It was a quality performance put together by the Opernhaus Zürich, and this revival was actually better than the one recorded on DVD ten years ago, despite the absence of Jonas Kaufmann.

    The audience that attended this sold-out performance loved the show, which was demonstrated by a very long and enthusiastic ovation, and I agree.

    Opera Lively pictures, curtain calls at intermission and at the end:

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    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); January 20th, 2019 at 07:41 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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  3. #2
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Production Pictures, photo credits Judith Schlosser, fair promotional use.

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    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); February 25th, 2018 at 08:00 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively News Coordinator Top Contributor Member MAuer's Avatar
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    Looks like it may be this production.

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MAuer View Post

    Looks like it may be this production.
    Yes, indeed. I didn't know it was released on DVD. Oh bummer, in this case maybe I should have watched the DVD and traveled elsewhere for the 6th. Too late, especially due to the already booked and non-refundable airplane ticket from Zurich to Berlin. But the production looks like it's a lot of fun anyway, and of course being in person at the opera house beats watching a DVD.

    PS - I ended up getting; reviewed below.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); May 24th, 2018 at 12:28 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Pictorial blog Zurich

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    To be continued, in the two other reviews of the Opernhaus Zürich productions.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  8. #6
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Preliminary review of the physical production which is the same, as contained on the DECCA DVD of 2009 (cover picture above). In addition to talking about the production (with the exact same crew), we'll also talk below about this very different musical staff (even the orchestra is different):

    Orchester der Oper Zürich conducted by Franz Welser-Möst
    Chor der Oper Zürich; Jugenchor, Kinderchor und Zusatzchor der Oper Zürich; chorus master Ernst Raffelsberger; Statistenverein der Oper Zürich (extras)

    Same stage director, designer, choreographer, etc.

    Directed for TV by Felix Breisach

    Filmed at the Opernhaus Zürich in 2008 (exact date not disclosed), released on DVD in 2009


    Carmen - Vesselina Kasarova
    Don José - Jonas Kaufmann
    Micaëla - Isabel Rey
    Escamillo - Michele Pertusi
    Zuniga - Morgan Moody
    Moralès - Kresimir Strazanac
    Frasquita - Sen Guo
    Mercédès - Judith Schmid
    Le Dancaïre - Gabriel Bermúdez
    Le Remendado - Javier Camarena

    DVD NTSC 16:9 anamorphic widescreen, region code zero (worldwide), duration 166 minutes, no extras. Sound DD Stereo or DTS digital 5.1 surround. Subtitles in French, English, and German. The insert has three color production pictures and three black-and-white. Credits, list of musical numbers with characters and duration. A short page-and-a-half essay by George Hall that does describe the directorial concept of the production and some costume choices. A two-page synopsis. This is repeated in English, French, and German.


    I like the energetic conducting of the overture by Franz Welser-Möst, and the orchestra performs with precision.

    For the opening scene the stage is a large circle under blue light (large for this stage, as in occupying all of it: the Opernhaus Zürich is not a very big house), with a naked curved wall behind it. A dog is asleep up front (it's not a real one; he has a mechanic tail that supposedly wiggles with applause). Soldiers walk up to the circle, in contemporary Spanish policeman uniforms. They open a beach umbrella. Micaëla shows up, doesn't sing particularly well (a bit strident), and the first riské element of the stage given that the soldiers aggressively remove her clothes and she has to flee in her underwear. Moralès performs his music well but it's nothing extraordinary. The male chorus is adequate.

    We get recitatives that are not typically included in performances of Carmen, with the soldiers making comments about the subjects of their people-watching (a man with his wife, his mistress is nearby, etc. - I don't recall having ever heard these lines before). Usually we'd get from the Micaëla scene directly to the "choeur des gamins" but here we get this relatively lengthy add-on. The music is by Guiraud (his first notes come at around 10 minutes into the show). The style of this stretch matches Bizet's very well, though.

    The children come up the same way, with their heads coming from below the circle. The effect is funny and interesting. Good blocking! By now the back wall is very blue and the white circle is very white, evoking a beach and a blue sky.

    The children's chorus is very cute but they have some synchrony problems.

    We get Herr Kaufmann, looking hilarious in his nerdy uniform. Zuniga browses a gentlemen's magazine with naked pictures. He chases away all the children. José sits on a beach chair... I've never seen Jonas looking so funny, haha! The quality of the singing jumps sharply up, from the second he open his mouth, naturally. Wow, Herr Kaufmann doesn't need any warming-up time! He hits the ground running, with his usual superb voice.

    As Jonas eats a sandwich and places an electric fan near him to bring down the heat, a door opens up and the women from the cigarette factory enter the stage, with really humongous cigars. Like the insert notices, here, unlike in Freud's famous phrase, a cigar is definitely not a cigar but indeed a phallic symbol. The female chorus does well, a bit more subtle than their male counterparts who sound frankly shouty and even a bit unpleasant.

    Vesselina Kasarova makes her entrance and her voice is very strange. It sounds very unstable in terms of dynamic variation, going loud and soft a bit too wildly. It is very dark in tone, sounding more like a contralto than a mezzo (which is not a bad thing; but then, her breathing is also very audible and she seems to lose pace at times, trying to catch up but running out of air - she seems past her prime - it sounds like she was a very good Carmen some 10 years ago; this was the 22nd recording of her 23, so she was already going downhill). She does not have the physique du rôle (significantly older than some of the Carmens we've been seeing lately; looks haggard, worn-out, grimaces a lot - I suppose this could be an interpretation of the character, given the directorial concept - but sexy she is not), and by now with the exception of Jonas Kaufmann, I can't say I'm enjoying this show, singing-wise. Pitch control becomes a problem too in the very middle of the Habanera. I didn't like her version at all. The public applauds, though, and the dog's tail does wiggle (funny).

    There is a strange disconnection, though. While this production does go for some funny touches, it feels nevertheless a bit humorless.

    Don José looks positively nerdy, which is a weird way to portray him.

    On the other hand, what a spectacular voice! Jonas launches into the "quels regards! quelle effronterie!" recitative with a lot of verve, and his end of the duo "Parle-moi de ma mère" continues to dazzle. He is in great form tonight, and just the pleasure of listening to him compensates for the musical boo-boos we've been getting so far. Isabel Rey's Micaëla on the other hand is painful to hear. Not only the strident problem continues but the pitch is unstable too. I've rarely heard a duet in which one of the singers is so spectacular while the other one is so mediocre. This seems like a waste of Jonas' considerable talent.

    We get to "Près des remparts de Séville" - and Kasarova does improve, warming up with steadier pitch, and her dark voice indeed possesses a beautiful timbre. She is also not a bad actress, if she is going indeed for this world-weary Carmen instead of a sensual one. Poor Jonas, though, seems to be stuck in this nerdy concept. So, we don't get the terrifying aspect of Don José's psychology, his edgy darkness and dangerousness. And in terms of chemistry, it is not helping that Carmen looks more like his mother than his lover. First act ends and applause is modest.

    So far, what I liked: the sparse sets (minus the dog; I wasn't particularly fond of it), the orchestra and the conductor, some of Kasarova's acting, and Kaufmann's phenomenal singing. Everything else, not so good: chorus, Kasarova's singing (well, yes and no), comprimarios, and especially a terrible Micaëla.

    Act two sets and lighting come up with brown/orange tones, a table with a black-and-white TV showing a soccer match, a string of lights. I like it.

    I'm getting used to Kasarova's strange voice and kind of liking it more and more. It certainly is not what one is used to hearing from this role these days, but it is kind of interesting. The "Chanson bohème" is delivered with considerable power. Frasquita and Mercédès on the other hand are very, very bland (comprimarios continue to be pale), and their choreography is a bit pathetic. These are no gifted dancers. But applause is louder this time, maybe thanks to Kasarova's energetic number.

    The orchestra continues to do very well. Musically things are starting to pick up a bit. Let's see what kind of Escamillo we get.

    OK, he got power. But he is not subtle. Still, it's not bad, and I like the scene in terms of blocking and acting. They managed to render well a sort of hole-in-the-wall bar with people drinking beer and enjoying the torero's song, and the costumes are what one would expect in this environment, including the gang-like kitsch ones for Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado. Gabriel Bermúdez as the former is not good at all, but in an exception to the generally not brilliant comprimarios, we get the surprise of seeing Javier Camarena in a minor role as the latter, before his career exploded (things started looking brighter for him some three years later, circa 2011).

    Lighting turns dark, with one spotlight circle in which Carmen and Don José interact in the duo where Don José says he needs to leave, and this is one of the most successful scenes so far. Given that when he states he must rejoin the regiment he ruins the atmosphere, the lights turn bright again and a furious Carmen confronts José, who sings as best as ever! Wow, isn't Herr Kaufmann wonderful?

    The black-and-white TV has switched to bull fighting.

    "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" is performed the way we've been used to, when it's done by Jonas: subtle, elegant, sensitive, progressively intensifying in a perfectly well-controlled ascension, and then the power and beauty of tone is unleashed and it soars and soars and soars, then descends again into delicacy. Whew! This is perfection. It is very hard to do it better than Jonas, and this moment is sufficient to justify the purchase of this DVD, just to hear the show-stopping, splendorous beauty of his interpretation! (Some of our big Kaufmann fans here will be delighted with this part of my review, I'm sure!). This time, the applause is enthusiastic.

    Anyway, act II is substantially better than act I in this production, and Vesselina's response to Jonas' exquisite show is intense too, although unfortunately she seems to get a bit breathy again, but she does unleash a lot of projection. Her eyes are beautiful, by the way.

    Zuniga almost kills Don José. He smashes a bottle on his head, kicks him out of the stage and points a gun at him, but Carmen calls for help and he is disarmed. Then, something unusual happens: Le Remendado kills Zuniga. The scene is well done. The act ends well. Very good second act! This is definitely improving!

    Act three has a huge moon projected on the back of the stage, all is dark, foggy, and bluish. A dark blue carpet is rolled over the white circle, while the orchestra performs very beautifully the prelude. Now, where the dog was, there is the carcass of a bull. Smuggled merchandise boxes are scattered around. Our Frasquita and Mercédès do ruin the scene a little with their unimpressive singing (and they are not particularly good at acting either); Frasquita is a bit better. Overall the scene did not work so well.

    We get another dose of our Micaëla, and regarding her "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante", while she doesn't start singing as poorly as in the first act, the harder second part of the aria is not as well done. Overall, though, she manages to avoid the disaster of her initial participation, and collects somewhat decent applause from the public.

    The scene between José and Escamillo is way better, with Jonas doing very well as usual, and our Escamillo, while he is not great, I've heard worse than this one. Musically it goes reasonably well. The fight choreography though is very stiff and unconvincing.

    Act IV features a large tree that looks good and all the choruses are brought back to good effect, this being their best moment. Keeping up with the animal theme, there is the skeleton of a bull, and very blue sky. The final scene features very good singing and impressive acting by both principals, and ends this show on a very high note.

    Understandably, in curtain calls Jonas gets a much bigger ovation than everybody else.

    So, let's see what the verdict is. We are faced with a product that has huge pros and cons. The physical production is sparse the way I like it, but irregular. Act I, the beach set is not bad; act II works better. Act III not as much, and Act IV is good. I'd say B+ with some interesting concepts but nothing to write home about, and I don't think the idea of a nerdy Don José in Act I paid off. Lighting is good, A+, and so is blocking, A+, but fight choreography is very bad, C.

    Orchestra A+, conducting A++, Jonas Kaufmann simply brilliant, A+++ in one of his best performances ever. Kasarova generally interesting and impressive but was better a few years back; B+. It is interesting to see a pre-fame Javier Camarena but the comprimarios in general were deficient, C+, and so were the choruses, particularly the male one (and the children didn't do so well either). B- for the choruses as a whole. Escamillo, B-. Micaëla, C-, by far the weakest link. Acting is better by Kasarova then by everybody else. On this she gets A. Jonas, A-. The others, rather weak, B- or lower territory.

    This is a mandatory purchase for Jonas Kaufmann fans, if they can put up with the other parts just to hear him. I guess they'll have to pick scenes with him and skip others. The good orchestra and conducting also help the musical side, and the title role is kind of compelling. But if you aren't a fan of Jonas Kaufmann (although it would be hard to understand why), then there is no reason to get this product.

    Overall some of the very bad aspects are balanced out by some of the very good ones, resulting in an average score of B.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); May 24th, 2018 at 01:55 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    The review of the performance on July 4, 2018, has been updated - so now this thread contains a review of the live revival (see the first post of this thread), and of the 10-years-old DVD of this same production.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); July 5th, 2018 at 08:08 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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